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Making waves: choreography moves into the museum

Museums and galleries are increasingly playing host to artist choreographers, who are performing site-specific integral works

Alexandra Bachzetsis’s The Stages of Staging. Photo: © Melanie Hofmann

Art and dance have had a close relationship, from the Modernist flowerings of the Ballet Russes to the downtown scene in 1970s New York. But they have remained largely distinct disciplines until recently. However, choreographers’ work is increasingly being incorporated into museum and gallery programmes, and as integral works rather than interruptions from a distinct artform. Art Basel brings some of the leading figures in dance together for The Artist as Choreographer, Friday’s Conversation, chaired by Hans Ulrich Obrist and featuring the choreographic artists Alexandra Bachzetsis, Xavier Le Roy and Isabel Lewis.

The background to this phenomenon is the two disciplines’ mutual interest in expanding definitions of what art and dance might be, and in bringing art and everyday life into a closer relationship. Bachzetsis’s work is emblematic of this shift. She has recently devised works for Documenta 13 and the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, and will appear in the BMW Tate Live event at Tate Modern, London, in October. She is interested in how different spaces—the theatre, the museum, the gallery, online space—“condition both the human body and the contemporary status of performance practice”, she says.

In The Stages of Staging, which she first performed last year at the Stedelijk, she says she changes the “timing and dramaturgy of the performance according to the specific conditions of the museum, with regard to its opening hours, versus the conventional opening night of the theatre”. In the work, ten performers appear in a gym-like space which is also a film set, leading to a work that is “part live performance, part intervention and part restaging of live-recorded video images”. Their movements draw upon references ranging from a film by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, “Warnung vor einer Heiligen Nutte” (Beware of a Holy Whore), and British Northern Soul dancing to “the seemingly endless (re)appropriation of pop songs and their cover versions”, she says, ultimately leading to an exploration of “self-staging and self-design”.

The theatre version is included within the museum performance, before being deconstructed in a two-and-a-half-hour “interlude” in which “you see where the references come from and you look more behind the scenes”. The theatre version is then repeated, “but it’s a lot more three-dimensional, turned around, twisted, made more intense”.

However, in From A to B via C, which Bachzetsis is currently developing and will perform at the Tate Modern, the choreography’s length will remain equal in both theatre and museum versions—only the spatial conditions will change. “In From A to B via C, the relationship between performer, space and the public inhabiting it is very important,” she says. “In the theatre version, we perform the piece for an audience watching us, whereas in the museum we stage it among people watching both themselves and us.” The museum version is therefore “more shared than consumed”.

Dance and non-dance

Le Roy, who has recently made work for the Fundació Antoni Tàpies in Barcelona and the Hayward Gallery in London, was part of a radical group of French choreographers who drew other disciplines into dance in the 1990s, and is suspicious of attempts to pigeonhole his work.

“When I started to do choreography, I was put in the category of ‘non-dance’,” he says. “But now that I do work in exhibition spaces, people say: ‘You want to bring dance into the museum’. And I say, ‘No, I don’t want to bring dance into the museum, I can do work for an exhibition space, but how can I bring dance into the museum when I’ve been categorised as a non-dance person?’ This shows the limit of this apparatus that looks at the discipline in a very narrow way.”

Le Roy says he likes “to work from the position of being ignorant in something”, following the idea of Jacques Rancière, the French philosopher, “that everybody has the ability to learn from the point of not knowing, and that’s where we should somehow try to meet and work in order to produce something”. He cites his performance based on Stravinksy’s “The Rite of Spring”. “I used gestures of the movement of a conductor, conducting an orchestra, and I started from the position that I’ve had no education in music, I don’t know how to read music. So I started from there, and did something from that position that anybody can do, somehow.”

A collage of movement

Lewis, who has performed at the Serpentine Galleries in London and the New Museum in New York, also taps into everyday movement. She is interested in “looking for dance as it’s embedded in life”, she says, using the club in which she deejays in her current home, Berlin, as “a place of research”, for instance.

Both Lewis and Bachzetsis speak about their work almost as a collage of movement. “Choreography is bringing things into relation in time,” Lewis says, “and that can be human bodies, plant bodies, object bodies, all different kinds of bodies. Of course, a painting does that, a sculpture can do that, an installation can do that, but there’s that additional element of time and duration—composing within something that’s contingent and mutable and shiftable. That, for me, is key to what’s interesting about dance and choreography.”

She argues that dance should not be separated from other cultural forms. “I find the division of the senses problematic and I’m much more interested in bringing them together. I feel that we are in a cultural moment where we are less able to believe in stable notions and fixed truths and we need to find ways to think and build thoughts upon contingencies and partial connections.

“Choreography can give us ways to access strategies of reading and composing situations in all of their multiform and ever changing complexity. And I think that’s maybe why choreography can be so prevalent in culture, and in galleries and museums all over the place.”

The Artist as Choreographer Conversation, chaired by Hans Ulrich Obrist is on Friday 20 June at 10am in Hall 1

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